Palestine Film Festival returns to Toronto

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The cameras have stopped flashing, the carpets have been rolled back and the droves of celebrity-seekers have gone home. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has come to an end for this year and despite its massive budget, roster of Hollywood A-listers and exclusive parties, it was over before it began. For all the energy and disruption before and after, the festival itself seemed to fade into Toronto's multitude of entertainment galas.    

Yet on the heels of the TIFF follows a small, young local film festival. The Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF) begins this Saturday, September 26 and runs through to October 2. In only its second year, the TPFF is a little different from the giant TIFF: its pockets are shallow, it is run almost exclusively by volunteers, it highlights a cultural group largely ignored in film festivals and it is more substance than shine.

Including a New Media Works art exhibit called “Jewels in the Machine” at Beaver Hall Gallery, three afternoon panel discussions with artists and filmmakers and a traditional Palestinian brunch by award-winning chef Isam Kaisi along with the expected Q & A sessions with directors, TPFF 2 offers more than just films from Palestine.

TPFF was born last year when those who eventually became its organizers saw the audiences for their scattered film screenings overflowing and decided that the 60th anniversary of the Palestinian nakba was a good year to start a new tradition. In this city of 60 film festivals and a large Palestinian and Arab community, TPFF 2008 filled a real hunger, with 4500 in attendance over a week of programs.

I spoke to film festival director Rafeef Ziadah after one of the TPFF's organizing meetings. “The goals of the festival,” she told me, “are simple. First, we wanted to introduce Palestinian film to the filmgoing public and secondly, we wanted to end the siege on Palestinian filmmakers.”

Being besieged does give a filmmaker a unique perspective. “Palestinian filmmakers can't travel freely in and out of the country because of visa restrictions, and they can't travel within the country because of checkpoints.” Last year's opening film, “Salt of this Sea”, Anne Marie Jacir, was denied entry into Israel and forced to shoot the last part of her film in France.

A film festival on Palestine can't help but raise a question about the relationship between culture and politics. “The goal is to highlight Palestinian culture,” Ziadah says, “and that is why we have the theme of 'non-stereotypical cinema.' Because the Palestinian experience isn't a harem girl, it's a single mother trying to raise a teenager in Illinois by working at Whitecastle (Amreeka). It isn't a guy on a camel, it's a man trying to get a birthday cake for his daughter (Laila's Birthday).”

Last year's festival opened with celebrated poet Suheir Hammad in “Salt of this Sea” and ended with the massively successful “Slingshot Hip Hop.” How will this year's top it? “There's a richer flavour this year -- literally, with the Sahtain brunch on Sunday the 27th, but also with the Jewels in the Machine art exhibit. Cherien Dabis's 'Amreeka' as an immigrant story will speak to Canadian audiences. There's a focus on Gaza, with Asma Bseiso's 'I am Gaza' and Sobhi al-Zobaidi's 'Missing in Gaza.' Cherien Dabis and Sobhi al-Zobaidi will be at the festival, as will other several other directors. So there's a lot of depth to this year's TPFF.”

A spoken word artist herself, whose CD “Hadeel” is scheduled for release just after the festival in October 2009, Ziadah sees TPFF becoming a permanent part of Toronto's cultural landscape. “We're humbled by the support we've received, not just from arts councils and community businesses, volunteers and artists, but from filmmakers and audiences.”

 

TPFF runs from September 26 to October 2 at the Revue Theatre, Bloor Cinema, the AGO, and Square One cinemas. View the full program and purchase tickets online at www.tpff.ca.

Lauren Mohamed is a Toronto-based writer.

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